WTO news: what’s been happening in the WTO

27 March 2002

WTO members set schedule to meet 12-month ‘modalities’ deadline

Agriculture negotiations, 26 March 2002

A special session of the WTO Agriculture Committee agreed, 26 March 2002, to a work programme which would set out by 31 March 2003 the key negotiating principles for a final comprehensive farm trade deal.

The 31 March 2003 deadline was set in November by trade ministers at the WTO’s Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha. Ministers also agreed on a 1 January 2005 deadline for reaching a final agreement on agriculture and all other areas of negotiations that comprise the Doha Development Agenda.

Started in 2000 as a separate negotation, the agriculture talks are now part of the Doha Development Agenda, with an enhanced mandate and clear deadlines.

The latest 12-month programme deals with one of the most critical stages of the agriculture negotiations. It will set “modalities” or targets (including numerical targets) for achieving the objectives set out in the Doha Ministerial Declaration: “substantial improvements in market access; reductions of, with a view to phasing out, all forms of export subsidies; and substantial reductions in trade-distorting domestic support”. It will also include some rule-making. This stage will therefore determine the shape of the negotiations’ final outcome.

The “modalities” will be used for members to produce their first offers or “comprehensive draft commitments”. The Doha Ministerial Declaration says this has to be done by the Fifth Ministerial Conference in Mexico, a few months after 31 March 2003. The negotiations themselves are to end by 1 January 2005 as part of the Doha agenda’s single undertaking.

The programme begins with technical work on detailed possibilities for each of the three “pillars” of the agriculture agreement: export subsidies/competition; market access; and domestic support. Special treatment for developing countries will be an integral part of all of these, and non-trade concerns will be taken into account.

Towards the end of 2002, these ideas will be brought together in an overview document. Intensified negotiations after the New Year would then produce the “modalities” document by 31 March 2003.

Chairperson-designate Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong, China, presided over the consultations that produced the consensus backing for the programme. Four informal consultations open to all WTO members were held to report on smaller group discussions and to hear comments before a consensus compromise was struck. One of the constraints was the need to avoid a schedule that clashed with other meetings — including negotiations in other subjects — in a busy year.

Mr Harbinson, who chaired the WTO General Council during the preparations for the Doha Ministerial Conference, was formally elected chairperson at the beginning of the meeting, a position he will hold until the Fifth Ministerial Conference in Mexico. He took over from Ambassador Apiradi Tantraporn of Thailand.

The “modalities” programme in detail:


  • June meeting: export subsidies and restrictions (informal 17–19 June, formal 20 June)
  • Early September meeting: market access (informal 2–3 September, formal 4 September)
  • Late September meeting: domestic support (informal 23–25 September, formal 27 September)
  • November meeting: follow-up (informal 18–20 November, formal 22 November)
  • After that, for circulation by 18 December: overview paper drafted by Chairperson Harbinson, based on discussions so far.


  • January meeting: comprehensive review based on overview paper (informal/formal 22–24 January)
  • Drafting: first draft of modalities document
  • February meeting: comments on first draft (informal/formal 24–28 February)
  • Redrafting: second draft of modalities document
  • March meeting: consideration of final text (informal/formal 25–31 March)
  • 31 March: deadline

In the first two phases an unprecedented 126 member governments submitted 45 proposals and numerous other documents setting out their initial negotiating positions in the negotiations. The talks have now moved into the more difficult stage of attempting to narrow the gaps and ultimately reach a compromise consensus.